Turkeys awash in antibiotics (and antibiotic-resistant bacteria)

Extruded

Photo by cobalt123 via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A recent study from Consumer Reports was all over the news yesterday. I first heard about it on NPR:

This week, Consumer Reports released a looking at bacteria on turkey meat that are resistant to medicines used for humans. Scientists there tested 257 samples of raw ground turkey meat that they purchased at grocery stores around the country. They conclude that turkey meat that came from turkeys raised organically without antibiotics was significantly less likely to harbor resistant bacteria compared with meat from conventional turkeys that were given antibiotics.

As Tom Philpott explains at Mother Jones,

Overall, 90 percent of the samples tested by CR researchers carried at least one of the five bacteria they looked for—and “almost all” of the bacteria strains they found showed resistance to at least one antibiotic. The two fecal-related bacteria strains—enterococcus and E. coli—showed up the most frequently…. What’s more, those bacteria tended to be superbugs—that is, resistant to at least one antibiotic…. Consumer Reports also tested samples of ground turkey labeled “organic,” “no antibiotics” and “raised without antibiotics.” (Under USDA code, meat labeled organic must come from animals that were never treated with antibiotics.) The bacterial strains that turned up in these products were much less likely to be antibiotic-resistant.

“Where are all these antibiotics coming from?” you ask. Andrew Gunther, Program Director of Animal Welfare Approved, puts in this way at Huffington Post:

The problem is that most consumers are still not aware that virtually all intensively farmed animals in the U.S. now routinely receive low, sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics in their feed and water. In fact, we use more antibiotics per pound of meat produced than any other nation in the world and a staggering 80 percent of all the antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used on food-producing animals. The reason? Feeding regular doses of sub-therapeutic antibiotics helps to maximize production of meat, milk or eggs by improving feed efficiency or by suppressing diseases that would inevitably spread in the confined, dirty, and stressful conditions of intensive livestock operations.

I’ve posted about the issue of antibiotic resistance before; for more, especially coverage of why the FDA’s current policy direction will have little effect, check out my earlier posts here, here, and here. As Tom Laskawy writes at Grist,

The USDA has plenty of compelling evidence that attacking the problems at the source — that is, reducing the amount of antibiotics used in meat production — could drastically lower the most dangerous forms of bacterial contamination. But the USDA is too hemmed in by industry to make those changes.

And that’s where you, the consumers, come in. Your role goes beyond practicing good food safety at home and using helpful resources, like the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s new “Risky Meat Guide,” to avoid meat with the highest rates of bacterial contamination.

One of the great food-system success stories in recent years involves the dairy industry’s reluctant abandonment of artificial growth hormones in the face of a virtual revolt by (mostly) mothers of small children. If meat eaters demand meat raised without antibiotics — it’s not significantly more expensive to buy, as it doesn’t have to be organic — the industry will be forced to respond. Producers will have to change the ways they raise animals, which will have the added benefit of lessening the need for repeated chemical disinfection at the slaughterhouse.

That’s better for the animals, for workers, and for consumers — even vegetarians, since antibiotic-resistant bacteria aren’t just on meat anymore.

So, meat eaters. What are you waiting for?

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